Fostering Appreciation for Cultural Diversity: Recognizing America`s Changing Complexion

  

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The face of America is changing -- becoming more diverse and complex than at any time in our history. We`re no longer a white-and-black society struggling to integrate two major groups of people who have been in this country for nearly 400 years, but a multiracial, multiethnic society in which newcomers are arriving in record numbers every day. The 1980s will be remembered as a period of one the highest levels of immigration in our nation`s history. Some ten million persons immigrated to the United States in the last decade, a number as great as that of the peak decade, 1900 to 1910.

Unlike the immigrants of the early part of this century who were primarily from Europe, the great bulk of the last decade`s immigrants--approximately eighty percent--were from Asia and Latin America. Much has been made of this phenomenon and many who favor restricting immigration suggest that these new Asian and Latin immigrants will be less successfully absorbed into the fabric of American society: "I know that earlier large waves of immigrants didn`t `overturn` America," says former Colorado governor Dick Lamm, "but there are . . . reasons to believe that today`s migration is different from earlier flows."

But, in fact, when we look at one of these groups, we find that most Hispanics are assimilating the social, educational, economic, and language norms of this society despite the image of Hispanics portrayed in the media and perpetuated by Hispanic leaders. Let me just acquaint you with a few facts about the Hispanic population with which you may not be familiar:

  • Mexican-origin men have the highest labor-force participation rates of any group, including non-Hispanic whites and Asians.

  • U.S.-born Hispanics have rapidly moved into the middle class. The earnings of Mexican-American men are now roughly eighty percent of those of non-Hispanic white men.

  • Mexican-Americans with thirteen to fifteen years of education earn, on an average, ninety-seven percent of the average earnings of non-Hispanic white males.

  • Most differences in earnings between Hispanics and non-Hispanics can be explained by educational differences between the two groups, but at the secondary-school level, young Mexican-Americans are closing the gap with their non-Hispanic peers. Seventy-eight percent of second-generation MexicanAmerican men aged twenty-five to thirty-four have completed twelve years of school or more, compared with approximately ninety percent of comparable non-Hispanic whites.

  • English proficiency is also key to earnings among Hispanics, but here, too, conventional wisdom about Hispanics is mostly invalid. The overwhelming majority of U.S.-born Hispanics are English-dominant, and one half of all third-generation Mexican-Americans--like most other American ethnics speak only one language: English.

  • What`s more, Hispanics, with the exception of Puerto Ricans, have marriage rates comparable to those of non-Hispanic whites. Three quarters of Mexican-origin, Cuban, and Central and South American Hispanics live in married-couple households. And nearly half own their own homes.

If these facts come as a surprise to you, it`s largely because most of the analysis of Hispanics fails to note that nearly half of the adult Hispanic population is foreign-born. And like new immigrants of the past, Hispanic immigrants will take at least one generation to move up the economic ladder and into the cultural mainstream.

Perhaps a little history lesson is in order. The current period is not the time in our history during which we have viewed new immigrants with distrust and suspicion. We tend to forget that Italians, Greeks, Jews, Poles, and others--whom some people lump together as "Europeans"--were considered alien to the white Americans of the early twentieth century, most of whom were of British, German, or Scandinavian descent. As Thomas Sowell recounts in his book, Ethnic America:

The remarkable achievements--especially intellectual achievements--of later generations of Jews cannot simply be read back into the immigrants` generation. These children often had serious educational problems. A 1910 survey of a dozen cities found two thirds of the children of Polish Jews to be below the normal grade for their ages.

Jews weren`t the only group that suffered such educational disadvantages. More than half of the immigrants from southern Italy at the turn of the century could neither read nor write, nor could nearly forty percent of those from Lithuania. Nor were these "Europeans" insulated from prejudice and discrimination. For anyone who believes that immigrants of an earlier day lived in halcyon times of tolerance and acceptance among their fellow white European-descended Americans, I recommend a few hours of reading through the reports of the 1921 Dillingham Commission, which in 1924 ultimately recommended a quota system to keep out southern and eastern European immigrants and Asians.

The point is that immigrants have never had it particularly easy in this society, nor have they always been welcomed with open arms, despite Emma Lazarus`s words on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Nonetheless, most of those who came here from other countries found the struggle worth the effort. And these groups did, by and large, succeed in America. Today, Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks, and others of southern and eastern European background are virtually indistinguishable from so-called native-stock Americans on measure of earnings, status, and education. Even Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, who were subject to much greater discrimination than southern and eastern Europeans, have done exceedingly well and outperform most other groups on all indicators of social and economic success. But it took three generations for most of these groups to achieve this status. For Italian-Americans, for example, it took until 1970 before they achieved the same average educational attainment as other Americans--some sixty years after the peak of their immigration to the United States. Is it possible, then, simply to mimic what we did in the past in treating this generation of newcomers? No. Let me concede that we did a great deal of wrong in the past, and immigrants succeeded in spite of, not because of, our mistakes. It would be neither compassionate nor legal to return to a system in which we put non-English-speaking children into public-school classrooms in which the instruction was entirely in English and expect those children to "sink or swim." In 1974 this approach was declared by the United States Supreme Court to violate our civil rights laws. Nor should we harken back to the "good old days" when Anglo conformity was the sole acceptable cultural model. But in trying to right past wrongs, we should be careful not to reverse ourselves 180 degrees by attempting to educate each group of immigrant children in their own native language and inculcate them in their own native culture. There is something wrong when two thirds of children from Spanish-speaking homes are taught to read in Spanish when they enter first grade in American public schools and three fourths are given Spanish oral-language development. If we insist on separate language instruction for all immigrant students--167 different languages are spoken in New York alone--we will close the door on integration, divide ourselves along cultural/linguistic lines, and thereby perpetuate inequalities rather than eradicate them. It seems to me that too often those who propose multicultural education are so obsessed with the excesses of Anglo conformity that they fail to see the benefits of a shared, common culture--not entirely white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant--but common nonetheless. And they fail to see the dangers in substituting one orthodoxy with another, no less rigid.

The more diverse we become racially and ethnically, the more important it is that we learn to tolerate differences--and also to celebrate what we all have in common. Whether we came to the United States voluntarily or involuntarily, we all choose to live here now. And more people want to live here than anywhere else in the world. No other country accepts as many immigrants as we do. Surely, even those who criticize our so-called Eurocentric society must admit that it has something to offer or there would not be such long lines of those waiting to get in-- very few of them European, by the way. What is it we have that these Mexicans, Cambodians, Ethiopians, Filipinos, and others want? Two things primarily: economic opportunity and political freedom. The two, by the way, go hand in hand, and it is our legal and political institutions that protect both. Now it so happens that those political institutions did not, in fact, develop in Asia or Latin America or Africa or even throughout most of Europe. It happens that the framework for our political institutions comes from England. The basis for American jurisprudence comes from English common law--not from Spanish adaptations of Roman Law that governed most of Latin America, or from the legendary rulers of China or from the Hsia Dynasty or from Confucianism, or from the Ghanian Empire, the Kush state in Nubia, or from Mali. That is not to say that these others are not important civilizations deserving recognition in their own right, but it is to acknowledge the special importance to our particular political/legal system of the Magna Carta, habeas corpus, and trial by jury, all of which were handed down directly from England. Of course, not all of these concepts were totally indigenous to England; King Henry II adapted from the Franks the system of trial by jury to replace the oath, the ordeal, or the duel, which were used in both criminal and civil cases until the twelfth century.

In our zeal to tell the stories of other civilizations, to include the history of those whose ancestors came from places other than England, we should not attempt to rewrite the history of our own founding and our political antecedents. Nor should we blush at the thought that this political/ institutional history now belongs to children who come here from Mexico, Vietnam, or Ghana or whose parents came from those countries. These children are now American children, and this is their political inheritance as much as it is the inheritance of the child of Italian or Greek or Russian roots, certainly every bit as much as it is the child of English roots. I believe that in our zeal to promote diversity we are forgetting that what makes this country virtually unique in the world is that we have forged an identity as a people even though most of us share very little in common in terms of our own personal histories. There is nothing wrong with holding onto personal history, but--given the incredible diversity of the country as a whole--it becomes increasingly difficult to expect the state to try to pass on that sense of personal history to each and every group. The most that can be expected, I think, is that we make sure that we recognize the contributions each group--once here--has made to the common history of this nation.

Is it possible to study the individual culture of the ancestors of each group represented in America? That depends on how superficial we`re willing to be. I suppose it`s possible to develop a dictionary of cultural literacy of every major group and teach children to memorize a few facts and dates about each. Given our current success with children`s learning to locate Arkansas on a map of the United States or China on a map of the world, or to tell in what half a century the Civil War was fought, or to name more than four past presidents of the United States, I don`t know what hope there is that such a project would have any lasting benefit. But there are other problems with this approach as well. Who decides what represents the "history" of each of these groups? Take Hispanic children, for example. What do we teach them about the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Incas--all important civilizations, but from which relatively few Hispanics living in the United States are actually descended? And what about the history of Spain? Should Hispanic youngsters be reading Cervantes and Lope de Vega or I, Rigoberta Menchu, an oral autobiography of a Guatemalan Indian now memorialized in Dinesh D`Souza`s new book, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus?

The issue is certainly no less complicated when it comes to African-Americans. In the name of multicultural education, many school systems have adopted an Afrocentric curriculum that mostly focuses on the contributions of ancient Egypt. There is no question about the fact that Egypt is on the continent of Africa. But that is about all traditional Egyptologists and Afrocentric scholars can agree on. Is Egypt better understood as part of the broader the classic culture of the Mediterranean, which also includes the Middle East and southern Europe? The Sahara, which separates Egypt from the continent to the south, remains even today a powerful cultural barrier. Are we to assume it was less so thousands of years ago? These issues are rarely addressed by Afrocentric curricula.

So if we cannot--and perhaps should not--try to teach each group its own individual history through multiple ethnocentric curricula, how do we try to deal with this increasingly diverse student population?

First, black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian children need the same basic skills that we take for granted that white children need. This is an obvious point, but one that seems sometimes to be forgotten when the subject of multicultural education is raised. All children in American public schools need to be taught to read, write, and speak standard English well. Their ability to master these skills will affect their life chances more than virtually anything else they learn--or fail to learn--in school.

Second, they need to be taught the basic math and science that will enable them to function in an increasingly complex technological society.

Third, they need a broad understanding of our form of government and its institutions. We live in a country in which we enjoy great freedom, but we also live in a country in which people are highly apathetic. If we hope to preserve democracy, our young people must develop a better appreciation for our heritage and be committed to preserving it. Somewhere along the way we have become reticent about instilling in our young an appreciation for democracy. If we expect to preserve our democratic way of life, we had better begin to develop that appreciation once again. And that means emphasizing the duties and responsibilities that go along with good citizenship.

Fourth, we need to teach our children the history of this nation. Here, we sometimes failed in the past to include the contributions made by all the groups that made up this nation. I said earlier that we shouldn`t shy away from teaching the essentially English antecedents of our political and legal institutions. But neither should we forget that many who built this nation were neither English, nor white, nor male. There are many excellent histories to consult about the contribution of African-Americans: W.E.B. Dubois, John Hope Franklin, Carter Woodsen, to name only three historians of the black experience in America. There are fewer familiar texts to consult on the contributions of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese-Americans, and other Asians, but two books on Latinos I would recommend are Hispanics in the United States by Harry Pachon and Joan Moore and The Puerto Ricans by Father Joseph Fitzpatrick. Both are short but comprehensive.

Fifth, all American children need a better understanding of the world in which we live, an understanding that includes something of the history of other nations. They need a grounding in geography, which, if taught well, will also teach them why nations developed as they did. Rivers, seas, terrain, climate are all important to the development of culture and should be understood as such. Man`s ancient struggle was one to comprehend and overcome the tyranny of nature. Of course, learning the language of another country is the best way to develop real depth in understanding of that culture, and I would hope we would not ignore developing second-language proficiency in all of our students. In this respect, immigrant children will have an advantage.

These recommendations are not exhaustive. Nor are they geared only to the child who comes from a nonwhite, non-European background. These recommendations are suited to all of our children.

The American pubic school was created on the premise that it would be a common school, one for all children. It has not always lived up to that ideal--certainly not before 1954 -but that does not mean we should abandon the ideal. The face of America is changing, but we should not give up on the idea that we are one people, one nation. Our efforts should be dedicated to making that ideal a reality.

Is there no place, then, for the preservation of language and culture for those among new immigrants--or any others in this society--who wish to retain aspects of their former traditions? Of course there is. Some would have us believe that assimilation means that every group will be stripped of what makes it unique and that the American character will be forged into a colorless alloy in an indifferent melting pot. But, of course, that is not what has happened in this country. As a trip into the heart of any American city will tell you, ethnic communities are alive and well, even as their inhabitants enjoy the fruits of social, political, and economic integration.

The question is not whether any ethnic group has the right to maintain its language, culture, and traditions, but whose responsibility it is to do so: Is it the individual`s or the group`s responsibility? Or should it be the responsibility of government to ensure that each group`s separate traditions be maintained? This, of course, is the heart of the debate now raging in many circles--a debate in which I come down solidly on the side of personal responsibility. If Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Greeks, or the members of any other group wish to maintain their individual and unique cultures, languages, or traditions, it must be up to them to do so. Indeed, many groups have been quite successful in preserving their native languages and cultures within the United States. Chinese parents send their children to school on Saturday to learn Cantonese or Mandarin and the history of their ancestors. Jewish children frequently attend Hebrew classes and receive religious instruction that teaches them not only the tenets of their faith but also the history of their people. Greek Americans are among the most successful of any group in maintaining their language in the United States; according to the 1980 census a majority of Greek Americans say they still speak Greek in their homes at least occasionally.

Those Hispanics who wish to maintain their native language and culture--and polls show that a majority of Hispanic immigrants do--should follow the example of their fellow ethnic Americans by establishing their own cultural societies by which to do so. Frankly, given the tremendous diversity within the Hispanic community, the only successful way for each group to ensure that its members know its history and traditions is to undertake that education itself. If government is entrusted with the responsibility, it is likely to amalgamate and homogenize in ways that make the original culture virtually indecipherable. The government, after all, is capable of lumping all twenty-two million Hispanics in this nation into one category--a category that includes Cakchikel Indians from Guatemala, mestizos from Mexico, the descendants of Italian immigrants from Argentina, Japanese immigrants from Peru, Spaniards from Europe, and the descendants of colonists who settled the Southwest nearly 400 years ago. Wouldn`t it be better to entrust each of these very different groups with the responsibility of maintaining its own traditions without the interference--or assistance--of the government?

Some critics warn that the United States is in danger of fragmenting into competing racial and ethnic groups. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has called it the "disuniting of America." No doubt, our task is more complicated today than at any time in the recent past. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that we can--if we commit ourselves--successfully integrate the more than seventy million blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians into our society. That we can create a new unum out of the many already here and the many more who are to come. But to do so will require the cooperation of us all--those who have been here for generations as well as those who are coming each day. It will require that each of us recognizes the covenant that exists between the old and the new: that we respect the rights of individuals to maintain what is unique in their ancestral heritages, but that we understand that our future is in forging a common identity of shared values and beliefs essential to the democratic ideal.